Culture (&) Crashes, Asiana Flight 214 and Cultural Intelligence

It’s never nice to hear about plane crashes, but particularly so when one him-/herself is about to embark on air travel. (Of course, the rational mind knows that the drive to the airport is actually the greater danger, but instinct demands its due.)

The crash of Asiana Flight 214 has been striking particularly close to home, however. After a fashion, anyways, not the least in the way that intercultural relations (and often, mere racism and ignorance) are brought to the fore by it, and culture is often pointed to as probable causal factor.

Asiana-crash-related tweet

In a thought – and thus, in the modern twist, status update – only too many commenters feel themselves reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” chapter in “Outliers.” (Not sure if legal, but it can be read here.)

It is the story of how Korean Air used to be one of the less trustworthy airline companies, apparently because Korean hierarchical culture prevented first officers from telling their captains forcefully/directly enough when they noticed a problem that potentially endangered the airplane.

Something of the story is certainly true. Different cultures do exhibit different ways of communicating things, based perhaps on different views of hierarchy, as well as different understandings of the communicative process and its proper functioning.

Problems with this explanation also abound, however, and they are problems that show just how the veneer of cultural knowledge can hide the actual lack of cultural intelligence.

Traditional Hierarchies -> Failing Communication?

Consider, for example, that a hierarchical culture which implies that subordinates have to resort to mediated (rather than direct) language/phrasings also implies that superordinates – or all, actually – have to be and probably will be very much attuned to such mediated language and the finesses of understanding that such talk requires for successful communication.
We speak the way we usually have been, whether that’s more direct or more mediated, we’ll probably understand each other. How could it be different?

Yes, the onus in much of East Asian, perhaps Confucian-influenced communication* may be on the listener to understand rather than the speaker to make himself absolutely clear – but that doesn’t only mean that the airplane’s first officer should really, really have acted differently (that’s a Western interpretation of what’s good – and yes, it may have been better in the cases described), but also that the listener/captain should listen and understand what’s (implicitly) meant (and have an easier time at understanding such more-implicit communication).

(*Also note how “Confucian” has been a popular label to apply to East Asian cultural phenomena whenever they are different from the “Western” and in need of a quick something-to-explain-it-all… without necessarily saying anything.)

(Also interesting in this context is the recurrent experience in intercultural communication, English-as-foreign-language teaching, and similar that it may be necessary for the -foreign language- speaker to make himself particularly clear when speaking to East Asian foreign language students.)

A Western captain and first officer may have basically the same problem, though: No matter how much (more) the speaker/subordinate may try to make himself understood, if the superordinate doesn’t want to listen, it would still not be of much use.

Witness experiments such as Milgram’s on obedience. It doesn’t take a (foreign) culture with a traditionally wide hierarchical gap to produce obedience, mediated language, and all that. Organizational cultures and even mere feelings of power differentials are quite enough for that.

“They” Are Different… Or Not

Furthermore, the cultural(ist) explanation falls short in other regards as well. Only too often, it surfaces only in particular contexts in which an(other) culture may be of effect and is prominent enough to bring itself into consciousness. Airplanes of other airlines sometimes also crash, but the flight crew’s culture isn’t invoked, even when miscommunication or negligence/routine played a role.

The NASA Challenger disaster was perhaps the most prominent case for culture being of no and the greatest effect in a ‘crash’ – culture in the ‘traditional’ sense of an other or the culture of a certain people’s/society played no role, the ‘culture’ of the organization, however, was the very factor that led to parts being used under the wrong conditions and with no one raising an alarm. Or actually, warnings being voiced but not heeded, anyways.
In later analysis, the problems became only too clear and easy to understand, but in the middle of it, no one wanted to hear. There’s no appeal to American culture and its defects, though.

The Führerbunker – yes, WWII Nazi HQ – has also been a popular example (and one that made it to the pop cultural status of meme). Hitler should have known, but was not usually told, about just how badly things were going for his side. Even when/if he was told, chances were better that the messenger would be ignored, or shot, than that reality would have been acknowledged.
These failures of communication (or even basic cognition) may be blamed on the myth of invincibility that the Nazis built up for themselves (and started to believe or at least couldn’t challenge anymore when things went badly), they may be extreme cases of cognitive dissonance being solved by repression – psychological and practical – of inconvenient facts. German culture and communication patterns associated with it, however, are not put forward as explanations.

It’s All *Their* Culture

Take a more-distinct “other,” though, and cultural(ist) explanations flourish.

Chinese officials are corrupt and uncaring about human rights, public and world opinion, it must be Confucian collectivism and Chinese culture’s notions of superiority. Not opportunity, economic pressures, different priorities and understandings.

Korean airplanes crash, it must be the hierarchical culture and associated failures of communication. Not inexperience with the type of airplane or some oversight.

Different cultures/societies are seeing things differently, it must all be because they are not yet (notice the evolutionist and teleological bend!) liberal and enlightened enough. Or, heavens forbid, their culture just made them too lazy and led them to take things too easy.
Just take a look at “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress,” edited by Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington… (or better yet, it’s discussion and rebuttal on Living Anthropologically).

And then, because “they” are so obviously different, news stations try to get a scoop before all the others and fall for an NTSB intern stating that the pilot’s names had been those:

KTVU Asiana Pilot Names

Cultural Intelligence, That Is Not

No, cultural intelligence isn’t knowing something of “how they are,” let alone how different and inscrutably so – and then promptly overlooking what’s right in front of our eyes, if only we look behind the “obvious differences.”

Cultural intelligence is realizing that such easy “explanations” are likely to contain a kernel of truth surrounded by a thick layer of misinterpretations and misunderstandings of our own. Which we can work on and overcome, but only if we start by not accepting the easy and convenient way out.

Simply referring to single and simplistic cultural explanations, even if mainly correct in one case study, even if described by the high-and-mighty Malcolm Gladwell, doesn’t go far enough. In fact, it easily leads astray, covering our own blind spots when they’d need to be revealed.

What we need to consider, if we truly want to understand and be able to work with that understanding, is the diversity and complexity of human cognition. Others and our own. In context.

One Comment

  1. Will Lee

    NTSB says it simply “confirmed” names provided to the agency by KTVU — so names were not generated by NTSB, but by the TV station.

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